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Published by Zuresh Path

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Published by: Zuresh Path on Mar 10, 2014
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Felix Ensslin
Between Two Deaths:
From the Mirror to Repetition
 “It is not the two that recompose in one, but the one that opens into two.” Chinese revolutionary slogan
 Most of the art criticism that has been informed by a reading of Jacques Lacan’s -“return to Freud” has focused in one way or another on what one might call the classical Lacanian notions, such as the mirror stage and his theory of the gaze. This kind of criticism was put forth mostly by writers from
, especially Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster.
 Krauss placed video as a medium in general and the video experiments of the likes of Vito Acconci and Linda Benglis in particular squarely within the narcissistic imaginary; and Foster defended neo-avant-gardism as a form of potentially- resistant repetition holding to a dimension of a social real. However, this essay and the exhibition
between two deaths
 will show that they
like most other current criticism, whether deriving from Jacques Rancière’s valuation of the “aesthetic regime” or from the many forms of poststructuralist or post-critical theory
miss a crucial point. There is more to Lacan than meets the eye. This “more” is to be found in the later Lacan, the Lacan of
Seminar XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge
, or of
Seminar XVII: The Reverse Side of Psychoanalysis
, though not exclusively, for in the light they shed, familiar concepts bear new fruits as well. However, it is not the task of this essay to argue with Lacanian scholarship. Rather, such scholarship might inform a reading of contemporary art and
in the spirit of inviting debate
shed light on the reasons for putting together the exhibition
between two deaths
. Arnold Gehlen has called subjectivity the “stigma of man.” 
 He does so with disgust and even despair. The exhibition and this essay argue, rather, that this stigma should be borne and borne out in confrontation with the dimension “between the two deaths.” In what follows, I want to give a brief overview of the dialectic between the issues of the mirror-stage and the dimension
between two deaths
. For the purposes of the exhibition, we took out Lacan’s definite article in order to indicate- the many ways in which the “second” death
symbolic death
appears within life. I will then present by what one could call a theoretical fairy tale in order to situate the art presented in
between two deaths
. It is a fairy tale because, with its references to history, like all narratives, it is in danger of bringing closure to what opens itself up or makes itself questionable and, if successful, gives the reader and viewer a chance at a new  “misunderstanding.” It is also a fairy tale because, like the folk-heritage once collected in the romantic age for the consumption and edification of a class that recently, after revolution, had witnessed restitution clothed in nationalist, or even vernacular mantles, the insight it can offer, while connected to a dimension of truth, provides no solace or wisdom, but having been written, remains non-determinative and preparatory. To think that writing produced in one place and sent off into a more or less anonymous world of reception can have, all by itself, an effect on or of the real is a “magical superstition” (Arnold Gehlen), and both art and analysis belie that superstition. Rather, if writing is effected by the real itself, what one can hope for is that it can be a cause for repetition in
and for
those who are able to stay open to this effect.
1. The Discourse of the Mirror Stage: Behind the Double Lurks the Real
Sigmund Freud thought of the
 “immortal soul” 
as the
 “first double of the body” 
 and of the double in general as a defense against death. “Between two deaths,” 
on the other hand, is a metaphor first introduced by Jacques Lacan in his discussion of Antigone in
The Ethics of Psychoanalysis
 that refers to a dimension of undeadness.
 It connotes that which is not “immortal,” but a-mortal—
that which, though mortal, cannot die.
 Hypostasizing the experience of this dimension as something “immortal,” the Aristotelian Christian tradition formed it into the soul as the living principle of the body. With this movement
from the subject to the undead “double” to its transformation into the immortal soul
one can see the circular movement into which the metaphor “between two deaths” is trapped, or which it itself in turn traps.
The “undead” is a-mortal, cannot die, thus it keeps insisting. It cannot be given a place in the order of the living, thus it returns. In Lacanian terminology, this is the real. At the same time, while it is a-mortal, it is also the opposite of the living
of that which exists
even more so than that which is actually dead. It thus is both: that which insists-, does not cease, never comes to an end, and, as such, is in some sense the
 of the living; yet, at the same time, it is its opposite, at least from the point of view of the ordered representations we ordinarily call reality. Here we can see the connection of the real to reality
in the final analysis it is as cause. We can also see why it is its opposite: because the real, lacking representation, never appears in reality as such. It neither is given nor finds itself an order; it has no symbolic existence, that is, no name that remains, no space that persists, no place in the calculable and countable. The “double” and its subgenres
such as shifting identities, referencing art-historical greats as the other of one’s artistic “I,” playing roles in performances, taking figures of popular culture as points of reference
have reappeared in contemporary art, particularly in the work of many of the artists in this exhibition, including Sue de Beer, Jutta Koether, Javier Téllez, Rita Ackermann, Brock Enright, and Aïda Ruilova, to name a few.
 This can be read as a symptom of being locked in a space between symbolic inscription
the subject is named such and has this place in reality
and the real as cause, as exclusion, as non-existence. However, these artists do not merely show us social or individual role-playing, or the fact of the difference between a role and its performer or a role and its social significance. A certain popularity has been enjoyed in art (and, in Germany, in theater) by the process of showing the gap between subject and “role.” Nothing, of course, was gained by that alone: showing that one plays a role means nothing. We all constantly play roles and know it. What is important is the excess within the role I play, that cannot be reduced to a “role.” Another way to say this is that the Ego is a real object. It also isn’t enough to show the comical difference between those who are able to play their role and those who aren’t, or to show that difference in the same individual between two moments. It’s the very split in each moment which matters and which opens up a horizon of universality.
 Thus, it might be much better to assume a role and “mean” it, actually take the embarrassment of being it, rather than reproduce in the audience a sophisticated gaze, splitting role and bearer as if together they produce a whole. The audience owns this gaze already, for it always already knows that roles are just roles. To show this simply reproduces a fantasy, not democracy, as some claim. It merely reproduces the status quo. The bar between sign and signified is real. Even if it is in the imaginary, as object it contains that which insists, which cannot be pacified. In a curious
combination, the work of American artists like Vanessa Beecroft, the recent video of Doug Aitken projected on the walls of the MoMA showing rich celebrities playing the role of working-class New Yorkers, cutting-edge theater in Germany (Marthaler, Schlingensief, and to an extent Pollesch), and the sociology and social-philosophy of the Habermas or Luhmann schools all share this less than innocent misunderstanding.
 Simply producing enlightenment about the contingency of roles reproduces the stuff of contemporary capitalist fantasies, not resistance against it. Why is the mirror stage so decisive? Because it thematizes the fact that narcissism cannot be outstripped precisely because it forms a
 obstacle to and functions as civilizing agent for the real
The mirror stage functions as an exit from the horror of undifferentiation, of fragmentation, and as a defense against being helplessly at the mercy of what emerges, or beckons, as it were, from both within and without the subject. It saves us from anxiety. It does this by taking another of the same kind as an already existing self-image, as a
, as it were, and recognizing in it the possibility of forming the fragmented body and its drives into a unity, or into the possibility of self-control and mastery. Of course, this is, at the same time, an alienation, because the image of myself is “another,” as the already clichéd poem of Rimbaud has it. I and the  “other” who is “I” is what Lacan calls the Imaginary. But
and this already leads beyond the usual focus on the mirror stage
this can only work because the “other” who is “I,” in whom I read the “anticipated certainty” of self-control and mastery, is already symbolically mandated him or herself, inscribed as a “one” into the whole of the order in which it can be counted. This is what, after all, the symbolic order, or the “Other,” is: a machine that counts everyone and puts them in their place. However, to focus on the mirror stage has led to the lazy mistake in theory that one talks about “commodity fetishism”—
understanding the fetish as the function of the double
and refers it to objects, artworks, and their value and place.
 In a form of ideology-critique, one assumes that once this lie has been understood, then, with a bit of good will, the whole edifice should crumble. Thus critique becomes moralism. But  “fetishism” is not a property that falsely is ascribed to objects. The fetish is real as an object, and it is real precisely because it is inscribed into a social order, into social relations, into a discourse. The fetishist object is a fetish, because in the very split caused by the real, the symbolic and the real merge into a kind of union. Thus, as such, it only appears in the split the real opens up, locating itself where the symbolic collides with the real. Thus, the subject itself, as object, i.e., as Ego, can become a -fetish, just as God can become a fetish, or rather, as the place of the Other can be taken up by the fetish. This is what narcissism in its extreme form is, if the object it produces no longer really counts symbolically. It has nothing to do with being trapped in the imaginary alone. It is what happens in the place where the symbolic hits the real. It is the object that fills the space between two deaths. The subject is real, the individual is imaginary, and discourse is symbolic. But the space “between two deaths” opens up precisely when the circle closes
when the real, the subject, appears in the discourse as impossible, and when the discourse produces the real as effect. As we will see, the contemporary subject’s “new maladies of the soul,” 
 its melancholy and exhaustion, its irony and displacement, must be located within this circular movement and the stops, the  “stuckness,” 
 it produces.

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